Newspapers on a digital device: Now there's an idea (Hello, iPad!)

Publishers have a chance to start with a clean slate – the magic slate of the iPad – and magazines and books are rushing to invent a reading experience with interactive features.

But what does the new medium mean for newspapers? The iPad eliminates the difficulties and costs of printing and circulation, but it sets up expectations of immediate news updates that readers have come to expect on mobile devices.

Can daily newspapers find their niche amid feature-rich magazines and news portals on the Web? Their success on the iPad may depend on finding ways to capitalize on their unique position in their local markets. A comfortably familiar habit may be just around the corner.

Enter the digital newsstand.
(See how to make your own

What took shape three years ago as a gadget hobbyist's art installation is gaining attention again. Joe Zeff presents a couple of interesting ideas for using updated newspaper racks to ease the transition from print to electronic media:

“Turn some of those honor boxes into WiFi hotspots, so that consumers can access the latest news when on the go. The boxes are already deployed; it just a matter of wiring them up and turning them on....

Another possibility: Partner with local coffeehouses to create fill-up stations where consumers can get a fresh cup of coffee and a fresh download of news, all in one stop. (Javascripting + java sipping!)

Both ideas have similar objectives: they strive to reinsert the newspaper into the daily routines of millions of consumers, by establishing and reinforcing behaviors that fit neatly into their busy lives.”

Will pixels replace print? Will credits replace quarters? The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today are among the early adopters, but strategies differ and pricing will take some time to stabilize. Local newspapers may have an advantage as the primary sources of information in their communities, if they put a premium on exclusive content.

The story is just beginning.



The digital newsstand


Who says newspapers are obsolete?

I've modified an old newspaper box to deliver the latest headlines to my living room each morning, and I don't even have to fumble around for quarters. It's a simple home project that you can make with just a few used parts. (Check out these sales of newspaper racks, computers and monitors.)


Sure, I could get the news on my desktop computer or handheld gadget, but as a newspaper editor, I've got a soft spot for tradition.

Front pages shown here feature some of Birmingham's big stories during the past year: the rise of
"American Idol" Taylor Hicks, the firing of Alabama Crimson Tide Coach Mike Shula and the hiring of Nick Saban. (The Birmingham News took home the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting soon after.)

(See the digital newsstand in action in this 30-second video clip)

Here's the scoop:


I found a used newspaper vending rack for sale on eBay for about $100, shipped. (Yeah, you can also find them on most downtown street corners, but who wants to deal with those pesky concrete anchors and padlocked chains?)

When the 3-foot-tall, 85-pound package arrived at my doorstep, it came wrapped in cardboard with just a few wadded-up newspapers for padding. Inside the cabinet was the coin-operated mechanism, which had been detached from the top for shipping. The door handle – slightly bent – poked out of the cardboard container.

The decals covering the sides showed that this rack once belonged to The Journal-News in Rockland County, N.Y. The box was
dirty and a little dinged up, but the door opened smoothly after a few dents were hammered out. Most importantly, the window was in good shape.
The box had two layers of decals,
which peeled off mostly intact. From beneath emerged the ghostly globe of the Gannett logo. A scraper and some potent chemicals wiped it out, along with the rest of the sticky residue.I sanded the surface, washed the cabinet inside and out and masked the acrylic glass window before spray-painting the exterior a glossy black.

I reattached the coin box on top, but kept the door unlocked for easy access. (Like many other newspaper boxes, it's a bit finicky.)



The window measures 14" by 11", which are the approximately screen dimensions of a standard 17" monitor. Online deals for small flat-screen LCD monitors can be found for about $130, and savvy shoppers may get even luckier.Finding a monitor with the right exterior dimensions was the tricky part.

The casing around the screen needed to be small enough to fit into the door inset, which is 16 1/2" by 13". A
17" LG Flatron LCD monitor, with just a 1/2" border around the screen, provided the best fit.

The monitor sits on a steel brace, which originally held the wide, clear plastic piece that pressed a newspaper against the window. The leg that attaches to the monitor stand extends back over the bottom brace, which tucks in underneath to provide more support.


The screen lined up perfectly with the window and fit snugly inside the door, so just a few brackets were needed to secure it. Inside the top of the door, existing holes were used to attach 3 pairs of L-shaped brackets and some other assorted hardware that hold the monitor. At the bottom, I used a 1/4" piece of wood to fill the gap between the monitor and the door brace, using screws to keep the monitor in place.


Just about any computer can run a slideshow or operate as a digital jukebox.

The adjustable shelf inside the newspaper box is big enough to hold a Power Mac G3 tower, which can be bought used at
rock-bottom prices.

I opted to go small with a
Mac Mini, which includes a DVD drive and a wireless card. The more recent models come with an infrared remote
control, but third-party remotes are available for older Macs.

A subwoofer fits below the adjustable shelf inside the cabinet, and satellite speakers are connected outside.

I ran some
rope lighting through the inside of the cabinet and down the back of the outside. It's not quite "Pimp My Ride," but the backlighting adds a bit of a dramatic effect.


With a little
AppleScript work, I trained my Mac to get the papers.

The Mac Mini connects to the Internet and to my
iTunes library through my home wireless network. Each morning the computer launches a script triggered by an iCal alarm. While cueing up a music playlist, the script automatically gathers images, crops them in half with GraphicConverter and launches a slideshow with PhotoPresenter, a nifty little $8 shareware program with lots of snazzy transitions. The remote can pause or cycle through the pages.


My images include pages I've produced an editor at The Birmingham News. The front pages of The News and hundreds of other newspapers are available online daily at the Newseum. The kiosk makes a handy Web browser and picture viewer, but you'll want to keep copyright law in mind before downloading images.

In addition to
playing slideshows, music and videos, the digital newsstand can be set up to perform other automated tasks, such as sending downloaded items as e-mail attachments, displaying RSS feeds or even printing a newspaper.

My modified box is a work in progress.
I printed a customized 11" x 17" rack card to dress up the front, but otherwise it's lacking frills. If I'm feeling adventurous, I might paint a design on the sides,
add some accessories or see if I can connect the coin mechanism to a remote that controls the slideshow.

At least I'll get to keep the quarters.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Comments are welcome.